by C. J. Laity
(The following are just a few excerpts from a lengthy December, 1994, eX-Out Column, which was the original Letter eX Gossip Column.)
Mark Messing and Cindy Salach went and did it now! They got married. Congratulations! Their wedding, at Studio 501, 501 W. Huron, was a spectacular occasion, including poetry by Marc Smith and Mark Turcotte. Paula Killen and Sheila Donahue walked the isle as the maidens of honor. Each of the guests' table included a nice little book with poetry by Maya Angelou, Lisa Buscani, Kae Penner-Howell, as well as the bride and groom. The tables also included disposable cameras. Shhhh. I stole some off the table. If you don't tell on me, I'll make you an offer. If you can name every poet I photographed at Cindy's wedding you can be eligible for a free lifetime subscription to Letter eX.. Write down the full name of every poet you see on our Holiday Issue cover and send it to us. I will draw one lucky winner from a hat.
Is it true that Marvin Tate, author of Schoolyard of Broken Dreams> (Tia Chucha Press, '94) is going to be a father in 1995? That's what I hear. Marvin is kicking it with a great new idea which happens every Monday night at the BopShop. Talk-A-Riot-Y is a TV TalkShow Live from the Underground, with Marvin's co-host Glanofer Fields. Each week features a different poet and other talented guests. It starts at 8 pm, $3 cover, and it's definitely "a riot-y" time. Lots of beer and cigarettes available. Be on time.
New City, Sept. 29, 1994, page 38, rated the Uptown Poetry Slam at The Green Mill as The Readers Choice: Best Poetry Open Mic in Chicago. The honor says: "Many poets fear the forum's boisterous nature, but which is worse: risking a rowdy response or receiving no response at all?"
The Best of the Feminist Writers Guild will be presented Friday, Dec. 9, from 7 to 9 pm, at Le Cafe. The evening of literary delights will feature Jeanne Martinelli, Jennifer Hinton, Joan Wendland and Whitney S. Scott, as well as others.
The Poetry Center of Chicago presents mark Doty and Stuart Dybek on Wednesday, December 14 . . .
The Neo-Futurists, 5153 N. Ashland Ae., are an ensemble of artists who write, direct, and perform their own work. They are dedicated to social, political and personal enlightenment in the form of audience-interactive conceptual theater . . . Sounds like their dice game is well thought out.
Woman and Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., celebrated it's 15 year anniversary on Nov. 12 and 13, with poetry / literary performances by Yvonne Zipter, Ella Jenkins, Sandra Cisneros, Paula Killen, Ellen Hart, Jennifer Berman, Emily Hooper, Glenda Baker, Carol Anshaw, Nicole Hollander, Lisa Buscani and Achy Obejas. I hope all that talent didn't blow their roof off.
Open & Out Series continues every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month at Le Cafe . . . Help them celebrate one full year of queer expression during Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Open mic. providing positive atmosphere for poets to express themselves . . .
--C. J. Laity, December, 1994
A Snake In The Heart:
Poems and Music by Chicago Spoken Word Performers
Reviewed by Anthony Miller
(The following review was first published in the December, 1994, issue of Letter eX.)
A Snake in the Heart is an audacious audio anthology, a CD time capsule of Chicago's spoken word poetry scene when it resituated the role between the page and stage. The Tia Chucha Press disc opens a space between performance and publication, where oral interpretation interfaces with emergent technology, Caedmon recording converges with coffeehouse happening, and "Song of Myself" mingles with Songs In The Key of Life.
Fifteen poems are performed by nine local poets with widely divergent forms of musical accompaniment. Despite the spoken word label, this disc is more than a simple litany of voices. "Along with the different voices," explains award-winning poet and Tia Chucha Press director Luis Rodriguez, "the various levels of musical involvement—some just voices, others, like mine, voice and guitar, and some with more elaborate orchestrations and electronic effects—add to the richness of the CD." Set against Tomas De Utrera's lone flamenco guitar, Rodriguez's opening poem, "Palmas," in some ways sums up the experience of listening to the CD. Like its story of a guitarist who journeyes through the sounds of Wes Montgomery, "crisp corridos," "Jarocho blues" and Jeff Beck although "he didn't venture / too far beyond his rickety porch," the disc transports the listener from the confines of the stereo across diverse poetic textures and musical traditions.
I first heard Michael Warr's "Manchild" and "Malcolm is 'bout more than Wearing a Hat" performed together at a reading at 57th Street Books on the opening night of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X." Together on the disc, they comprise a continuous narrative about the transformation of a hero who goes beyond Claude Brown's book and Malcolm's autobiography to experience personally the dangers of symbol making. A funked-up Last Poets-style delivery infuses Marvin Tate's urgent evocations of Tenderloin and playground scenes, "San Francisco Sky" and "Schoolyard of Broken Dreams." Inspired by the death of Dantrell Davis at Cabrini Green, Rohan Preston's poem "Mosquitoes" (in his forth-coming Lovesong To My Father), equates the "whistling terror" of mosquitoes with bullets. With the tense fingering of Mitar Covic's upright bass and Angela Shannon and Glenda Baker's stirring choral repetitions, the poem imagines a fearful atmosphere of desire and death in poetry not so very far from the one that pervades Faulkner's novel of the same name. National Poetry Slam Champion Patricia Smith delivers several unaccompanied, or "dry," readings that are powered only by their own musical cadences. Listening to the similarly spare, overlapping dialogues of Cin Salach and Sheila Donahue's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and "Being Outside Most of the Time" is like listening to a Beckett dialogue, a Jenny Holzer installation given voice, or a language instruction tape in which the phrases meant to be repeated have run amok. The final poem, David Hernandez's "Liquid Thoughts," provides a romantic and introspective coda by a "word-dealer," a singer who tells us he "can fashion them in passion," but reminds us about the inability even of poetry to express always what is in the heart.
A Snake in the Heart also fatures poets Christopher Stewart, Cin Salach and David Hernandez with the ensembles with which they pioneered various approaches to the combination of poetry and music, Circadian Rhythm, The Loofah Method and Street Sounds. For other poets on the compilation, the CD format provides an opportunity to share the otherwise internal music that influences their composition or accompanies them as they read. Warr's "Manchild" is accompanied by Mark Messing on saxophone and James Kirk on bass with the sound of Miles Davis' "So What." "The music is there subconsciously," Warr explains, "as if the music were waiting for the poem." The absence of liner notes for the poems—a financial, rather than aesthetic, decision—makes understanding many of the lyrics above the musical arrangements difficult. At the same time, this inability to consult the texts encourages the same concentration as an unreproduceable live event and the discoveries in repeated listening of a musical document.
Originally entitled Poemadiscus, the title A Snake in the Heart is taken from the title of the cover painting contributed by artist and poet Tony Fitzpatrick. Rodriguez explains, "People can see the snake in a very dark way. I see it as a reality chain, the chain that brings you back to dark, but very important and real places in the city, bringing out voices and lives that are normally highly marginalized and forgotten." Another interpretation of the title might go more to the "heart" of the form than the content, recalling the lines of Patricia Smith's Gillespie-inspired jazz exegesis, "Spinning Till You Get Dizzy": "Jazz by ragged definition / pumpstarted its own heart . . . Jazz demanded the unleashing of so many souls / turned order into impetuous melody."
Rodriguez, Guild Complex executive director Warr, Preston and Tate organized the Snake in the Heart collaboration almost two years ago. For Preston, the disc "heralds the kind of vibrant kinetic energy of this Chicago Poetry Scene." Even as the energy of spoken word makes poetry more accessible, some spoken word practitioners are careful to observe the current performance poetry scene as part of a larger continuity. Warr, who cites Stevie Wonder among his many formative influences as a poet, has organized The Guild Complex's third annual "the Musicality of Poetry" festival. "We're not just going to read the work of poets of different generations and discuss how that experience relates to what we're doing today." He sees these events as an opportunity to "regenerate and revitalize things that have been going on for centuries" and return poetry to the "mixed media" performances that existed long before the term in the arts of Africa and Greece.
"This is a time to be reaching out," proclaims Warr. "I hope these new forms of experimentation continue to take place. That is what Snake in the Heart is: a form of experimentation with the synthesis of poetry and music, part of a larger experiment with the synthesis of poetry with other forms like dance, video and visual art." Both Warr and Rodriguez are inspired by their first effort in this new poetic medium, by the support it has received at fundraising events for the disc at the Green Mill, the Red Dog, FitzGerald's, the Hot House, and other spoken word venues, and by the future it promises for a greater and more knowledgeable audience for poetry.
As spoken word poetry on a CD becomes a medium for samplers as well as scholars and a must for any truly enlightened radio station playlist, Rodriguez entertains even more far-reaching possibilities. "There's been a rumor about poetry. It's been on the fringe of our society. We need to bring poetry into every part of the society, behind cereal boxes, from inaugural events to sports events. We need to have commercials that aren't commercials to put poetry out there. Every person has the capacity of doing poetry—it's part of human nature. That doesn't mean they're all going to be poets. The creativity moves in different ways." Recordings such as A Snake in the Heart should inspire new forms of creative reception to sounds and ideas among poets, but also among those audiences who commune and communicate with the poet. "To paraphrase Whitman," states Rodriguez, "great poets require great audiences."
--Anthony Miller, December, 1994
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